Gearing up for the online road ahead

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Roger Popeis principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

It was the late Seventies when the first computers appeared in our school.

They were made by Commodore and called personal electronic transactors, as strange as the orange flared trousers I then wore, yet known by the cuddly acronym of PETs. If you fed them with a cassette tape, they did extraordinary things such as play hangman with you. We felt on the brink of a brave new world, and wondered what we would do when computers ruled the classroom and teachers became redundant.

But life went on much as normal. The PET was replaced in the 1980s by Acorn's BBC Master, then Archimedes. With six 5-inch floppy disks, pupils could produce their own newspaper front page. It took hours, but it was exciting. English teachers set story titles such as "The day the computers took over" and there were earnest discussions over staffroom ashtrays about what we would do with all our extra leisure time while the computer did the marking and the robot cleaned the house.

Life went on much as normal. Enter the 1990s and a room full of PCs that you could use with a class if you could find a slot on the timetable. Disks shrank to 3.5 inches. Schools spent hours training teachers to work programmes they never used and so forgot, and we wondered how this Web thing might be useful. Life still went on, but not as normal as usual because some teachers started to use the technology more interestingly, and the pace has quickened in the first decade of the 21st century. Digital projectors, capacity, speed, wireless, and with broadband the unleashing of the full power of the internet. We have stopped talking about how computers will do teachers out of a job. Instead, we are using them to personalise learning.

The Government has spent millions on ICT in schools and wants to know what the impact has been. The organisation tasked with answering that question is Becta, the schools technology agency. Its research suggests that 15 per cent of schools are e-enabled and have used ICT to improve learning significantly. Its job is to encourage the remaining 85 per cent to reach the same level.

Becta has produced an excellent online tool to help schools identify where they are on the ICT journey. It is unusually helpful for audits of this kind as it makes explicit the next steps a school might take and suggests actions to help them move on. More than 6,000 schools have used it since its launch in April 2006, suggesting Becta has met a need and a hunger in schools.

There are still teachers who do not see the point, and at a recent conference even a head voiced the "I can't afford it and not sure if it's worth it anyway" viewpoint. He clearly did not have teenage children at home, busy doing their homework by taking part in the class blog on "Who killed King John?" while simultaneously texting friends, flicking to Bebo or MSN and listening to music they downloaded earlier. These are the portfolio workers of the future who will still be in employment in the unknown world of 2060. The PET has come of age, ICT in schools is an entitlement not an option, and life is definitely not as normal any longer.


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